China’s defence is anchored by a formidable military, with advanced capabilities epitomized by cutting-edge technologies like the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. As a major player in global geopolitics, China continually invests in modernizing its armed forces to safeguard national security interests. This article explores China’s advanced armoured forces, focusing on tanks like the ZTZ-99 and Type 96, emblematic of the nation’s rapid modernization, while delving into the upgraded Type 88, sniper-equipped Type 69, and licensed-built WZ-120 (Type 59).
China’s top battle tanks
The ZTZ-99, also referred to as the Type 99, is a third-generation main battle tank (MBT) that was developed by China. Its development began in the late 1980s as a replacement for the ageing Type 88. The Norinco Group, a state-owned defence corporation in China, was responsible for designing this tank, which entered service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2001. The Type 99 is based on the chassis of the Soviet T-72 and is equipped with various weapons, including a 125mm ZPT-98 smoothbore gun with an autoloader, a QJC-88 heavy machine gun, and a Type 86 coaxial machine gun. While the specifics of its armour are classified, it is expected to have a welded turret with applique and modular composite/reactive armour. The tank is powered by a 150HB liquid-cooled V12 twin-turbo diesel engine, enabling it to reach a maximum speed of 76 kilometres per hour on roads and 54 kilometres per hour off-road. The Type 99 represents a significant advancement in the PLA’s modernization efforts, incorporating features such as modular composite armour, a 125mm smoothbore gun with anti-tank guided missile capability, high mobility, digital systems, and advanced optics. It serves as the cornerstone of China’s contemporary manoeuvre combat capabilities.
China’s second-generation main battle tank, the Type 96 (also known as ZTZ-96), was developed by the Norinco Group and introduced into service with the People’s Liberation Army in 1997. It was designed to modernize the second-generation Type 88 tank and replace the Type 59, a Soviet T-54A tank that was license-copied by China. The Type 96 is equipped with a 125mm smoothbore main gun, a 12.7mm anti-aircraft heavy machine gun, and a coaxially-mounted 7.62mm general-purpose machine gun for anti-infantry defence. Its armour is modular in design and uses ERA blocks for improved point defence. Weighing in at 47 tons, the Type 96 can reach a maximum speed of 65 kilometres per hour (74 kilometres per hour for the Type 96B) and is intended to counter other current 2nd Generation Main Battle Tanks in the world. Production of Type 96 MBTs is handled out of the First Inner Mongolia Machinery Factory, and as of 2015, more than 2,500 were estimated to be in service with the PLA. The Type 96 is expected to form a major portion of PLA mechanized forces, supported by the more expensive and capable 125m-armed Type 99 Main Battle Tank systems.
The Type 88, also referred to as Type 80, is a series of medium second-generation main battle tanks (MBTs) manufactured in China. Its development commenced in the late 1970s, building upon the progress made during the creation of the Type 69 tank. Notably, it was the first Chinese tank to be officially designated as a “Main Battle Tank”. The Type 88 originated from the Type 80 prototype series, which also gave rise to the Type 85. At a certain point, the Type 88 underwent upgrades, receiving a new turret and hull modifications inspired by a later model of the Type 85 Tank series. It was introduced into service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the 1980s. By 2003, it was estimated that approximately 500 Type 88 MBTs were actively serving in the PLA. The Type 88 is armed with a 105mm rifled gun and is equipped with a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun and a 12.7mm air-defence machine gun for defence. While the specifics of its armour are classified, it is known that the Type 80 features a cast steel turret, while the Type 85II/Type 88 incorporates a welded steel/composite armour turret. The tank is propelled by a 12150L-7BV diesel engine, generating 730 horsepower. It can achieve a maximum speed of 57 km/h. The Type 88 represents a significant milestone in China’s endeavour to modernize its tank capabilities, blending contemporary Western technologies with Chinese weapon systems derived from Soviet designs dating back to the 1950s.
The Type 69, a Chinese first-generation main battle tank (MBT), was developed as an enhancement to the Type 59 medium tank, which was a domestically produced version of the Soviet T-54A. Its development commenced in 1963 and it was officially commissioned in 1974. The No. 60 Research Institute spearheaded the tank’s development, while the First Inner Mongolia Machinery Factory handled its manufacturing. Equipped with either a 100mm smoothbore or 105mm rifled tank gun, a 7.62mm coaxial and bow machine gun, and a 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun, the Type 69 also boasted a laser rangefinder, making it suitable for sniper engagements. Although the tank’s armour classification remains undisclosed, it is known to measure 203mm. Powering the tank is a 12150L-7 V-12 diesel engine, generating 580 horsepower and enabling a maximum speed of 50 km/h. During the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acquired a Soviet T-62 MBT. Certain components from this captured tank, such as the Soviet Luna IR (infrared) searchlight system, were replicated and integrated into the Type 69 prototype. Consequently, the Type 69 became the first Chinese tank capable of combat operations in low-light conditions. By 1985, approximately 9,500 Type 69 tanks had been manufactured.
The WZ-120, also known as the Type 59, is a Chinese rendition of the Soviet T-54A tank, which was an early version of the widely used T-54/55 series. It was first manufactured in 1958 and officially entered service in 1959, with mass production commencing in 1963. By the time production ceased in 1985, over 10,000 units of this tank had been produced. The Type 59 is armed with a 100mm rifled gun, a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, and a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun. Although the armour specifications are classified, it is known to range from 20 to 203 mm. The tank is propelled by a Model 12150L V-12 liquid-cooled diesel engine, generating 520 hp and enabling a maximum speed of 50 km/h. During the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acquired a Soviet T-62 MBT. Certain components of this captured tank, such as the Soviet Luna IR (infrared) searchlight system, were replicated and incorporated into the Type 69 prototype. Consequently, the Type 69 became the first Chinese tank capable of combat operations in darkness. By 1985, approximately 9,500 Type 69 tanks had been manufactured. The Type 59 served as the primary armoured force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army until the early 2000s, with an estimated 5,000 of the later Type 59-I and Type 59-II variants still in service by 2002. Throughout its service, the Type 59 underwent multiple modifications and also served as the foundation for subsequent Chinese tank designs, including the Type 69 and Type 79 tanks.